Hoffman death highlights heroin rise

A man mourns outside the apartment where Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in Manhattan, New York. REUTERS/John Taggart
A man mourns outside the apartment where Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in Manhattan, New York. REUTERS/John Taggart
The death of renowned character actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman of a possible heroin overdose is shining a spotlight on an epidemic of opiate addiction that has soared over the past decade.

Heroin has made a comeback after a decade-long outbreak of narcotic painkiller abuse. The prescription pain pills, such as OxyContin, are opioids that produce a potent high similar to heroin if abused.

As authorities crack down on pain clinics that prescribed the pills by the thousands and pharmaceutical companies change their formulas so the pills are more difficult to abuse, opiate addicts are turning to cheaper and plentiful heroin. An 80 mg OxyContin pill can sell for up to $100, while a five-dose-a-day heroin habit costs less than $60, according to federal law enforcement officials.

In recent years, the number of people abusing prescription pain pills has dropped steadily as heroin use increased. The number of people 12 and older who regularly abuse OxyContin dropped from 566,000 in 2010 to 358,000 in 2012, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported in December. The number of regular heroin users soared from 239,000 in 2010 to 335,000 in 2012, the survey found.

In New York, where Hoffman lived, heroin is readily available.

Last month, Drug Enforcement Administration agents shut down what they described as a "high-volume" heroin mill in a Bronx, N.Y., apartment where they seized 33 pounds of heroin worth $8 million and hundreds of thousands of tiny glassine bags stamped with "brand names" such as "NFL," "government shutdown," "iPhone," and "Olympics 2012." DEA agents believe the mill supplied heroin dealers throughout the Northeast.

"A seizure of this size should open everyone's eyes to the magnitude of the heroin problem confronting us," said New York Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan.

Nationwide, law enforcement, political leaders and health officials have sounded an alarm over heroin.

In Vermont , Gov. Pete Shumlin devoted his entire annual address to the legislature last week to heroin addiction, which he said had reached crisis levels in the state.

"In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addictions threatens us," Shumlin said. "What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis."

In Pennsylvania last week, Attorney General Kathleen Kane warned the public about bags of heroin branded as "Theraflu," "Bud Ice," and "Income Tax," that contain a deadly mix of heroin and the prescription narcotic Fentanyl, often used as a last-resort painkiller for cancer patients.

The deadly combination had been lined to 22 deaths in Western Pennsylvania.

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